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Loading and unloading cattle

Good preparation and a detailed understanding of the risks of loading and unloading cattle can help to keep cattle producers, livestock transport operators and cattle handlers safe.

What do we mean by loading and unloading cattle?

Loading and unloading cattle typically happens on properties and at saleyards. It involves getting cattle onto a livestock trailer or truck so they can be transported to another location and unloaded.

The cattle are typically mustered into yards or pens and rested prior to being transported. The vehicle is parked so that the cattle can walk from the yards up a ramp into the bay.

The cattle are unloaded from the trailer or truck when they reach their destination. To do this, the vehicle is once again parked near a ramp so that the cattle can walk down into yards or pens.

Cattle can also be cross-loaded. This means being transferred between trailers. Cross-loading involves reversing two trucks together and the drivers climbing up the side of the cattle crate, standing on top of the crate and often inside the crate to move the cattle from one trailer to the next.

What are the risks of loading and unloading cattle?

In Queensland, there have been many incidents where workers have been seriously or fatally injured during the loading or unloading of cattle.

Cattle are large animals and their behaviour is often unpredictable when they are handled in confined spaces.

The risks of loading and unloading cattle include:

  • being crushed, kicked, trampled, and gored
  • fracturing or breaking bones
  • dislocations
  • amputations
  • death.

Cross-loading cattle is considered one of the most dangerous activities that occur when handling cattle. It comes with added risks including:

  • falls from working at heights
  • slips and trips from working on unclean surfaces inside trailers.

How do I manage the risks?

Workers and management can work together to reduce the risks of loading and unloading cattle.

For workers

As a worker, you must:

  • take care of your own health and safety as well as the health and safety of others
  • cooperate with management to meet health and safety requirements and reduce risks.

For businesses

As an employer or business owner, you have legal responsibilities as outlined in the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 for the health and safety of every worker and visitor.

The four-step risk management process below will help businesses to meet their responsibilities under work health and safety (WHS) laws.

You can also use the practical advice in the How to manage work health and safety risks code of practice 2021 (PDF, 0.65 MB).

Four steps to manage risk

The first step is to identify the hazards.

Think about the work processes and ask yourself:

  • Are all workers trained and experienced in stress-free cattle handling, loading, and unloading?
  • Are the stockyards, ramps, trailers, and trucks suited to task and in good working order?
  • Are all cattle in the herd suited to trailer and truck transportation?

Talk to your workers and ask:

  • Are you aware of any potential hazards?
  • How can we improve our safety and our processes?
  • Do you know how to report a hazard?

Regularly review your own records, and consider:

  • What do your workers’ compensation claims, recorded incidents, sick leave, and worker complaints tell you about past incidents and hazards?
  • What can you do to prevent the same things happening again?

Identifying hazards should be an ongoing activity and something organised at least once a year, or whenever there is a change in equipment, facilities, or work practices.

Next, assess the level of risk posed by each hazard. The risk level is determined by:

  • how serious the potential harm is
  • how likely it is to happen.

You can use this risk assessment template (DOCX, 0.02 MB) to guide you and record your assessments.

The law requires you to eliminate the risks if practical, or to minimise them as much as possible.

You must work through the hierarchy of controls to choose the control that most effectively eliminates or minimises the risks. This may involve a single control measure or combination of two or more different controls.

Find the hierarchy of controls in How to manage work health and safety risks code of practice 2021 (PDF, 0.65 MB) .

Additional ways to control the risks associated with loading and unloading cattle include ensuring:

  • the holding yards or pens are an adequate size and strength to hold the cattle awaiting loading
  • where possible, leave the cattle in the yards overnight to settle prior to loading
  • all workers:
    • are trained and experienced in anticipating unpredictable animal behaviour and in safely loading and unloading cattle
    • understand and use low-stress cattle handling techniques
    • plan for the trip and avoid extremes of weather to protect the welfare of the cattle and to help keep them calm.
  • the loading ramp is:
    • appropriate for the size and flow of the cattle
    • not too steep (the Australian Livestock and Rural Transporters Association has standard designs of loading ramps)
    • the right width for the breed or class of cattle
    • sheeted to eliminate distractions and prevent legs getting caught
    • finished with a non-slip surface and does not create undue noise
    • fitted with a handrail.
  • there is a sliding gate at the top of the ramp that can be safely used to secure animals once loaded
  • stressful activities such as dipping, drenching, and dehorning do not occur just before loading
  • only cattle fit for travel are prepared for loading and transport
  • cattle are loaded to the approved density only.

When cross-loading cattle, the risks can be further controlled by using a cross-loading module with a series of elevated platforms, over-trailer walkways, and sliding gates or barriers. Find out how Frasers Livestock Transport designed the custom-built cross-loading module.

You should regularly review your control measures. Don’t wait for something to go wrong. If necessary, change or adjust your approach. The aim is to maintain a work environment that is without risks to health and safety.

Work health and safety laws require you to review controls:

  • when you become aware a control measure is not working effectively
  • before a change that might introduce a new risk
  • when you find a new hazard or risk
  • when your workers tell you that a review is needed
  • after a health and safety representative requests a review.